By Matida Jallow
I recently came across two disturbing Facebook posts pertaining to tribal discourses directed to a particular political party and tribe. Generally, controversial and contentious issues like this are discussed at a superficial level in The Gambia. This is dictated perhaps by the deliberate attempt to label people as tribalists once one made a conscious attempt to address controversial issues which might not fit the expectations of certain individuals and groups. This has apparently reached the point that what is considered as true and undeniable fact is determined not by the internal validity of the issue itself , but by the tribal and political identities of who states it and who receives it. This explains why many critical issues remained unaddressed amidst the fear of unfair and negative labeling by others. This stands behind the superficial treatment of tribalism and tribal politics, which are routinely discussed without given a sufficient consideration to the context in which such issues are shaped and sensed.
The issue of tribalism and tribal politics and their ugly manifestations in the social and political landscapes of the Gambia can only be comprehended by deconstructing, and reconstructing the concept of politics, tribe and tribalism and their external validity in relation to the Gambian context . While this task is necessarily important for the sake conceptual clarity, it is beyond the mission of this article. What is relevantly important to note here is that the surge in tribalism and tribal politics in the Gambia cannot be fully delineated for the benefits of knowledge consumers without putting into the account the political history of the country, and the settlement of different communities and tribes, and the nature relations between communities and tribes, patterns of migration into the Gambia, and how migration is responsible for the establishment of new settlements characterized by homogeneity of its people, and the annexation and sometimes insertions of homogenized communities within or in outskirts of towns and villages across the country.
The Gambia and her people are not born out the current happenstances. And the consciousness of people about their identities and collective interests, shaped by their shared history and sense of belonging to one genealogy, are not shaped today. Meanwhile, the recognition of different tribes about the existence of other tribes in their vicinity is never an alien phenomenon to the Gambia. These have made communities, tribes, and villages continued to observe coexistence, and forged economic and social relations necessitated by sense of interdependence. Cross-tribal marriage was cherished, and children of different tribes are brought up under one roof by parents who have kinship connections across all tribes. I see myself as one typical product of the cross-tribal marriage.
I was born into a Fula-Mandinka family in a Fula-Mandinka mixed community in Baddibu. I was raised in Farafenni and subsequently in Brikama to accept the fact that we are different in some as aspects, but the same in many ways. Many of Jola and Mandinka brothers and sisters shared with me similar position in terms of our family backgrounds, especially those born in Kombo, Foni and Kiang. Many of us were socialized upon the value of tolerance to others.
Yet, since 2016 to date, the Gambia is fashioned into a new country. Social relations and family ties were reshaped to be a reflection of our political and tribal affiliations. Those Gambians who grew up together in the same compound and street became enemies , and mistrust shaped their approach to each other, thank to the politics and politicians.
However, there is more to this ugly social trend, which transcends politics and the behavior of politicians. Over the years, the Gambia has been the preferable destination for many migrants from the neighboring countries. Different pushing factors, ranging from political suppression, economic hardship, war and conflict, were responsible for the migration of different people from Senegal, Guinea Conakry , Guinea Bissau, Sierra Lions, Liberia, and Nigeria to some extent. In light of the institutional fragility of the Gambia and lack of a thoughtful migration policy many of the migrants become citizens without going through the prescribed process, while many were given privilege to pursue their dreams, as some dominated vital sectors of the country.
Generally, migrants and descendants of migrants are linked to their newfound country by national documents and by certain economic interests. This is not a unique reality to The Gambia; rather its an omnipresent element in migrant communities across the globe, especially in the case of African migrants in other African countries, and African migrants in the West. This phenomenon is created by migrants’ natural attachment to their ancestral homes and their disconnection to the history, culture, and shared destiny of their new destinations. Equally, migrants, especially economic migrants, are primarily concerned about their collective economic interests ; hence their attitudes and standards to national issues and policies of their newly adopted countries are determined by the extent do which such issues and policies would harm their economic interests, regardless of the subsequent harm or benefits to the natives. In light of this reality may western countries adopted thoughtful assimilation and acculturalization policies to facilitate the integration of the first and second generation of migrants into the society, as a necessary step to grant them citizenship. This is making many second generations of African migrants, and few first generations feel sense of belonging to the wider national identity of the country , albeit the presence of subtle Institutional discrimination.
In the absence of such assimilation and acculturalization policy in the Gambia, many migrants, who are found across all tribes disproportionately, became Gambians without dropping their tribal identities in favor of the Gambian identity. As a result many belong to the political community (the Gambia) by papers, and to its people and institutions by interest, unlike the natives (who are also found across all tribes unevenly) who belong to the Gambia and its people by history, culture, shared destiny etc.
The existence of this divergent reality between the two people of the same country constituted a golden opportunity for the politicians to exploit the situation to their political interests. Hence, the past 25 years witnessed political mobilization of the fragile society, and political interests were fashioned to become tribal interests. This has awakened bad feelings of those tribes who found themselves in a defensive position, while the rest approached the new phenomenon with a great caution and concerns. Nonetheless, given that migration into the Gambia is linked to tribes, and given that the views of the natives towards national issues are naturally different from those of migrants who could not be assimilated into different communities , those in power counted on the Gambians of migrant background, and few natives to fuel the tribal politics either passively or actively, while many native remained indifferent to it.
However, given the power of discourse and the authorities enjoyed by those at the helm of power, the manner the then head of state framed the politics successfully misled people to perceive politics from the perspective of tribal interests. Eventually, those who feel hurt by such practices took a defensive turn, and some elements of other tribes depicted the defense of the victim of the tribal discourses as a vindication of the allegations labeled against them by those in power. As a result, many natives found themselves in this awkward position, and many took neutral positions while others played active role to accelerate the situation in pursuit of their political interests. However, those who belong to the country by papers, and interests become principal agent in this tribal politics , and they bent on framing the party politic in the eyes of natives, who share with them tribal affiliation, as tribal issue.
The situation shaped the voting behaviors of many Gambians in the 2016 elections. As political campaign for 2021 elections is getting boiled, similar trend is emerging in a force. Nonetheless this year’s tribal politics is subtly and ironically endorsed by the very person who was perceived to be the victim of the 2016 tribal discourses. What remains the same though is the active involvement of people of migrant backgrounds in fueling the situation. What makes this election further unique is that many elements of tribe are putting their tribal glasses to choose their candidates and panties or disdain the candidature of the others who are thought to be naturally linked to certain tribes.
This has reached a situation where people are using tribal considerations to support what overly runs against the supreme interest of the country. In some occasions, the tribal agitation is making some to deny brute fact and reality when it fall in the favor of those who are disdained for who they are. Similar, situation are reported where people support certain parties not because they believe in the competency of the leader of that party, but because they harbor prejudice to those who are seen rival to these parties. In all situations, the extent to each a Gambian is trapped in this tribal politics is determined by the status as a native or a Gambian with a migration history.